Film Preservation

I recently watched “These Amazing Shadows,” a 2011 documentary on the National Film Registry, the history of American cinema, and the work of preserving culturally, aesthetically, or historically significant films.  I had previously known that 80% of all silent-era films and 50% of all pre-1950 films have been lost over time.  Generally speaking, once a film finished its run in the theaters it was no longer considered valuable (although some films such as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca were often re-released).  Therefore, the studios would lock the films away in vaults to collect dust and deteriorate.  It would be one thing if the films collecting dust in vaults had been made of more durable material, but unfortunately the fragile, highly flammable nitrate that most films were made of before 1950 requires specialized care.  Basic neglect, vault fires, and even pests were these films’ worst enemies, so it is impressive that any of them survived to the present day.

The importance of preserving our film heritage cannot be overstated.  While this may seem to be an obvious assertion when thinking about classic films, important documentaries, or historical or cultural touchstones, it is even true for lesser forms of film.  After all, you can’t call a film “great” without have some schlock to compare it to.  Furthermore, schlock can be very entertaining given the right circumstances and the right amount of wit.

An interesting example of a film that probably seemed unimportant at the time but has been preserved by the National Film Registry is known as “Gus Visser and His Singing Duck.”  The film is a test film created by Theodore Case when he was developing the first process that could consistently match sound to film.  The film is only a minute and a half and is pretty goofy (and available on YouTube).

Now, one would think that the studios would have jumped at the chance to add sound technology to film.  In fact, studios were reluctant to add sound processes to their movies.  For instance, no less a superstar as Charlie Chaplin absolutely hated the idea.  Case effectively got the Studios to buy into his sound process by making goofy demonstration videos, so it is important to know how he got these people’s attention when he pitched them the idea. (Clarification: Case and Lee De Forest first demonstrated their sound-on-film process in 1923The Gus Visser Film was made in 1925 and was not one of the 18 films that Case and De Forest used to demonstrate their process to the public at the Rivoli Theater in New York City on April 15, 1923.  It is however, demonstrative of the type of Vaudeville performances that were shown that evening. DGM)

Anyway if you are interested in film preservation, here are some links:
The National Film Registry

The National Film Preservation Foundation

The Film Foundation

(c) D.G. McCabe

The Empire Strikes Back and the Science Fiction Genre

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

1980, Irvin Kershner, USA

“The force is with you young Skywalker.  But you are not a Jedi yet.”

Most people that are familiar with the Star Wars series consider the Empire Strikes Back (“Empire”) to be the best film of the six.  Once in a while you’ll run into someone who finds the original Star Wars (1977) or Return of the Jedi (1983) to be their favorite, but I find it hard to argue against Empire.

And why not?  Empire succeeds in everything that it tries to do.  It moves the story along from the first Star Wars film, sets up a convincing love story, trains Luke (Mark Hamill) as a Jedi, builds tension, and ends on the perfect note to set up the next film.  There are none of the plot inconsistencies, or unsuccessful attempts at humor that you find in some of the other films in the series and far fewer issues with the dialogue.

So if Empire is an extremely successful and well made film – where does it stack up against the classics of the science fiction genre?  I would first argue that science fiction is such a versatile genre that it is really like comparing apples and oranges, but let’s give it a try anyway.

Besides Empire, three other great science fiction films include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968),  Solaris (1972),  and Ghost in the Shell (1995). First, 2001 is a story about mankind’s place in the universe, contains groundbreaking visuals, and gives the audience a chance to soak in the concepts of the film with its long shots and minimal use of dialogue.  It’s nowhere near as entertaining as Empire (I personally find it boring), but it isn’t intended to be – it’s intended to make you think about reality whereas Empire exists in a self-contained, fantasy universe.

Solaris is about human isolation, nostalgia, and loneliness.  It is the story of a cosmonaut who is tempted by a living planet to exist in his past rather than his present.  It isn’t so much a science fiction film as a fever dream.  Empire isn’t interested in peering deep into your soul the way Solaris is, and with good reason.  Could you imagine Han Solo (Harrison Ford) getting nostalgic about, well, anything?

Ghost in the Shell, of course, is not about a fantastic galaxy far, far away, but about our present relationship with technology.  It is a commentary on the line between man and machine, and, at base, what makes us human.  Granted it has a lot more action than Solaris or 2001, but its psychological themes are in some ways encompassing of both films.  Like 2001, Ghost in the Shell asks to what extent can we become dependent on machines/computers and still be human? Like Solaris, it explores isolation by asking if we can have constant access to the “net” yet still feel isolated?

Is Empire a “great” film?  Like 2001 or Solaris or Ghost in the Shell, it is well made and executes its goals without obvious flaws.  The issue, I believe, is that Empire’s success occurs in the mythological universe of Star Wars.  Rather than provide commentary on the present human condition, it instead builds upon a mythological story filled with basic and accessible themes about good and evil, fathers and sons, and friendships helping us overcome adversity.  It doesn’t reach for the philosophical as much as these other films, but that’s not a flaw in my opinion.

Too often we are compelled to assign “greatness” to the most philosophical works and dismiss films with simpler themes as mere entertainment.  I would argue that a film’s “greatest” exists in how well it achieves its objectives – not by what those objectives are.  If you use that as a measure, indeed Empire is a great work of science fiction and one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Star Wars (Episode IV): The Phenomenon

Star Wars

(a.k.a. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)

(1977, George Lucas, USA)

Star Wars may be the most popular movie of all time.  When adjusted for inflation, only Gone with the Wind (1939) has made more money at the box office – and it can be safely said that Star Wars is a more popular film than that particularly troubled work.

As an impartial movie observer, I would agree that there are better films than Star Wars.  It’s true that George Lucas’  greatest cinematic influences comes from the man whom this writer believes is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived – Akira Kurosawa.  Most notably, there are elements of Seven Samurai (1954) and the Hidden Fortress (1958) visible in Star Wars.  Both of these are considerably better movies than Star Wars, but, while popular, they are mostly popular among film buffs, film historians, and filmmakers.

So Star Wars is more popular than its cinematic influences, and it is more popular than the only movie that has made more money than it has (granted that film had a 38 year head start on Star Wars and periodic re-releases in that timeframe).  So why?  The first clue can be found in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” a favorite of George Lucas and a seminal work in modern mythological theory.  In it, Campbell sets forth the concept of the “mono-myth” or the singular myth that weaves a thread through the myths of all societies.  To boil it down into two sentences, the mono myth involves a reluctant hero answering a call to adventure from an older, father figure.  The hero must either defeat or avenge the father figure in order to complete his quest and return from it with a benefit to society as a whole.

While Lucas used Campbell’s work as a blueprint for Star Wars, elements of the mono-myth by its very nature can be found in numerous other better, less popular movies.  Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the aforementioned Seven Samurai, and other classics films follow the Campbell mono-myth quite closely.  What sets Star Wars apart are three elements: its characters, its music, and its technology.

First, the acting in Star Wars is not technically of a high quality.  But who cares?  The actors’ performances create interesting and memorable characters.  It is no small feat that characters that appear on screen for only a few minutes at a time are among fans’ all time favorites.  The main characters are among the most memorable in cinema history (no matter who shot first, which, by the way, was obviously Han).

Second, the musical score, heavily influenced by Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suite (one of the most important pieces of music from the 20th Century), is among John Williams’ best. Remember, this was in the era of drum machines and synthesizers, and I’m sure some film producer told Lucas to use a more “futuristic” sounding score.  But just as Stanley Kubrick used a classical score for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Williams’ orchestral score magnifies the epic feel of the film.

Finally, the technology’s impact cannot be understated.  No one had figured out how to make realistic space combat on screen before Star Wars.  If you watch the classic television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, for instance, you will see dozens of crappy attempts at this.  The fact of the matter is that Star Wars made these effects look real, and this was a huge deal at the time that cannot be understated.

Beyond these three elements, the popularity of Star Wars sustained itself in a time before the internet or easy access to home video.  The experience of seeing that film for the first time stayed with fans for decades, and comes back to them a little bit every time they see it.  That even goes for those of us who first saw the movie on home video or on cable television.  While you can nitpick flaws in Star Wars’ script, acting, or the changes and updates Lucas has made to it over the years, it is its ability to impact the first time viewer and stay with them that makes Star Wars perhaps the most popular film of all time.

(c) 2012

Star Wars: Episode III and its Classic Villains

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

(2005, George Lucas, USA)

Revenge of the Sith (“RoS”) is by far the best film of the prequel trilogy.  The film of course focuses on Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) becoming Darth Vader and the Republic becoming the Empire (and thus the Chancellor becoming the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid).  I often wondered why Lucas chose to accomplish both of these tasks in a single film instead of spreading them out, but it definitely works out well in the end, as the film successfully sets up not one, but two classic movie villains.

The Emperor of course has been playing a double agent since Episode I, simultaneously controlling the Republic through the Senate and the Separatists through his apprentice, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee).  Clearly his apprentices don’t last very long (Darth Maul (Ray Park) lasts at least an entire film whereas Count Dooku is only really in the second half of Episode II), but there is method to his madness in that he’s aiming for the apprentice he truly wants the entire time.

The Emperor fits a villain archetype of the grand schemer.  Other examples include Blofeld from the James Bond series, Lex Luthor, and Michael Corleone.  These are men with tremendous power and effect their will not through brute force but by shadowy manipulation.  When compared to aforementioned villains, the Emperor is certainly a head above Blofeld (who’s over complicated schemes end up causing his undoing).  As for Luthor, it depends what interpretation you’re going off of; with the modern interpretation certainly more on par with the Emperor than the Silver Age, mad scientist Luthor.  Corleone is a good comparison. Even though he eventually repents in the Godfather Part III, his ruthlessness and meticulous scheming are certainly on par with the Emperor’s.

Darth Vader on the other hand is a villain as fallen hero.  Certainly he can be compared to Hercules or Lancelot, but those comparisons really don’t fit.  After all, Hercules was allowed to rectify his crimes through his twelve labors, so his fall to the proverbial “dark side” was only temporary (and caused by Hera for that matter).

The example of Lancelot is a bit closer to Vader, but still doesn’t work.  After all, Lancelot did not intend to bring about the fall of Camelot, it was instead a consequence of his forbidden love affair with Guinevere.  Still, it is never shown that Lancelot is a particularly bad or evil person, but rather a man who placed his own feelings above the needs of the kingdom at large.  While this is certainly Sith-like, the lack of any ruthless malice on his part causes the example of his fall to be a bit short of Vader.

I think that the uniqueness in Vader is that he was first introduced as a villain and it was later revealed that he was once a hero. While the greatest plot twist in the history of cinema has been undone by the universal popularity of Star Wars, and later by the Prequel Trilogy, there is still value in approaching the Vader/Anakin dichotomy as Vader first.  After all, it underscores the danger that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) faces in the Original Trilogy since it shows how extreme “falling to the dark side” really is.  There is rarely a chance for redemption, and any good intentions that the individual once had are now completely nullified by the lengths they will go to pursue whatever it is that they want.

Vader is of course a far more interesting villain than the Emperor in this manner.  The intricate web the Emperor weaves to come to power is far more interesting than the Emperor as a character, while Vader’s character and actions are both interesting to dissect.  Still, both are classic villains and Revenge of the Sith succeeds at showcasing their rise as villains, or as in Anakin/Vader’s case, his fall as a hero.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Star Wars: Episode II – A Study in Pacing (or What Not to Do)

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

(2002, George Lucas, USA)

When Attack of the Clones (“AOTC”)  came out, I remember there being a collective sigh of relief among movie goers.  Every place where Episode I went wrong seemed to have been righted.  There was less of a cartoonish feel, no child actors, and (almost) no Jar Jar.  But once it had beat initial, and admittedly lowered, expectations, an examination of the movie reveals a structural problem responsible for its failure to meet its potential – the movie’s pacing.

When you break AOTC up in pieces, you’ll find some of the best action sequences in all of the Star Wars movies: the chase through the skies of Coruscant; the fight between Obi Wan Kenobi and Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) in the rain on Kamino; and the Battle of Geonosis at the end.  However, the movie never feels as exciting as any of the Original Trilogy or it’s successor, Revenge of the Sith (2005).

The movie begins promisingly enough with an assassination attempt on Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), whom the audience was introduced to in Episode I.  The movie then slows to a crawl as her Jedi protectors are assigned (Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewen McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen)).  After that there is a tremendous chase scene.

Let’s compare this chase sequence from AOTC to one of the most exciting sequences from the original Star Wars (1977) to demonstrate.  The chase scene on Coruscant is preceded by heavy exposition and slow pacing.  Now, it is okay to shock the audience with a chase scene, raising the stakes and speeding up the film.  However the movie returns to its pre-chase scene pace immediately afterwards.  The movie follows this pattern for its remainder.

Now, take a look at the escape from Mos Eisley in Star Wars.  The Stormtroopers are closing in on Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), and when they are found out the movie escalates immediately.  However, unlike AOTC, the movie never returns to its pre-Mos Eisley pace, and every action sequence continues to build on the sequence that preceded it.  Likewise, every post-action slow down never returns to the pace of the slow-down that preceded it.  You can’t say this about AOTC.

If it were up to me, AOTC would be shown in every film editing class as the best example of what not to do when setting up the pace of a movie.  It isn’t a horrible movie by any means, but it never quite lives up to the potential of its bits and pieces because of the disjointed way that they are put together.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Star Wars: In Defense of Episode I

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

(1999, George Lucas, USA)

After having my flight canceled, spending an unexpected evening in Charlotte, NC, and basically heading straight from the airport to work yesterday, I’m back from Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando, FL.  In celebration of the Celebration, I’m writing a six part series on the Star Wars movies, in episodic order.  This means starting with the much maligned Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (“TPM”).

The recent release of TPM in 3D gave movie critics an opportunity to practice their favorite bloodsport – dumping on a blockbuster.  Not just any blockbuster mind you, one of the most heavily criticized films ever made.  The criticism is so prevalent in our culture that we tend to forget there’s a movie under there at all.

Does anyone like TPM? I, for one, would argue that no movie makes the kind of king’s ransom at the box office that TPM did ($1B worldwide, $474M) without someone liking it.  If no one liked it, would people get dressed up as characters from it at a four day convention?  I mean c’mon people, I even saw someone in a Jar Jar costume!

Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that TPM is a good movie and I probably never will.   I’ll never forget when I first saw it how cartoonish it seemed compared to the Original Trilogy.  But I don’t remember hating it, and I don’t remember joining the chorus of critics of it until much later.

TPM doesn’t stand alone as an individual movie – but it never was intended to.  It’s a piece of a massive mythology that contains five other movies, dozens of books, video games, comic books, and a fantastic animated television series (The Clone Wars).  TPM was charged with setting the groundwork for that entire endeavor, while still being an entertaining film.  We all know to what extent it failed to do so, but here are some places where it succeeded:

1. The Jedi are friggin’ awesome.

The first thing that TPM establishes is that the Jedi are the supreme warriors of the galaxy.  Not in the way that the original Star Wars does (as legend), but by actually showing off their skills to the audience.

2. The Jedi are really, really patient.

I know, I know, Jar Jar (Ahmed Best) is really annoying.  The thing is though that the Jedi seem to agree.  Obi-Wan (Ewen McGregor) is shooting him dirty looks the entire movie, for example.  Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson), however, is patient with this creature, and treats him with respect despite his annoyance and obliviousness to his own stupidity.

3. Some things that seemed stupid when they were introduced in TPM are okay when explained later.

Anakin’s immaculate conception.  The boring senate scenes.  Midichorlians.  When we first saw TPM these things drove us crazy.  But, it turns out that all of these items lay the groundwork for the intricate web that the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is weaving in his ruthless rise to power.  The Emperor knew of Anakin because his master had been experimenting with the Dark Side of the Force to create life (and maybe others like Anakin, who knows).   At the same time, it is made clear that the Midichorlians aren’t the Force itself, but mircrobes that are particularly sensitive to the Force.  Even the boring Senate scenes are more interesting when we know exactly what is going on (the Emperor’s rise to power).

4. Qui-Gon Jin, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Darth Maul (Ray Park) are great characters

Despite the focus on the disappointing or stereotypical characters, TPM actually does introduce some great characters to the Star Wars mythology.  The returning characters (The Emperor, C3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker)) don’t miss a step either.

Conclusion

TPM does not stand on its own merits, but that doesn’t make it a worthless film.  True, TPM is only enjoyable if you know what’s going on around it and you can immediately watch two more movies that will clear up inconsistencies and provide context.  The problem is that none of this other information was available when TPM came out – thus the thrashing that it received from critics and fans.  While I would start with the original Star Wars (I can’t get into calling it A New Hope, sorry) when introducing the story to someone who is unfamiliar with it, I also think that age and context have redeemed TPM to a certain extent.

(c) 2012 D. G. McCabe

2012 Sight and Sound Poll – Snap Judgments

First, I know I spend a lot of time writing about the “best” this and the “greatest” that.  I tried to avoid writing a reaction piece to this week’s Sight and Sound Poll, but since it’s only released every ten years I couldn’t resist.

As an overview, the Sight and Sound Poll has been conducted every ten years since 1952 and ranks what scholars, critics, directors, and other film experts consider the best movies of all time.  Unlike its American counterpart, the AFI 100, it ranks films from all of the world.  I’m not going to comment on all fifty selections, so I’ll stick to the top ten.

1. Vertigo (1958)

It’s hard for me to rank Vertigo as Hitchcock’s best film, much less the greatest film ever made.  Psycho (1960) and Rear Window (1954) are, in my mind, superior to Vertigo.  Still, as a technical achievement Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most successfully experimental film, his Persona (1966), so to speak.  Calling it the greatest film ever made though is still a tall order for me to accept.

2. Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane has been called the greatest film ever so many times that its selection as such is usually considered a given.  The problem with Citizen Kane though is that, while it is undoubtedly the most important American film, it is no one’s favorite film.  I think that latter fact finally caught up with it in this year’s poll.

3. Tokyo Story (1953)

Tokyo Story is Ozu’s masterpiece, and it is great to see Ozu being regarded so highly.  My only quarrel with this pick is that I can’t imagine how it gets picked over Persona as the greatest demonstration of raw emotion in cinema history.

4. The Rules of the Game (1939)

Renoir was brilliant, it’s true (so was his father, impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir).  I’ll admit that I haven’t seen The Rules of the Game, but of the French movies I have seen it has a lot of convincing to do in order for me to agree that it is the pinnacle of French cinema.  I’m not saying it’s not possible, but I’m skeptical.

5. Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans (1927)

This is where the Sight and Sound Poll loses me.  Yes, Roger Ebert and others have stated that film is about images primarily, and I agree, to a point – sound to me is so integral to modern film that silent film really needs its own category as an artform.  Still, the only Murnau film that I’ve seen is Nosferatu (1922), so I can’t really address the merits of this one.

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Yes!  Finally a choice that I can’t nitpick.

7. The Searchers (1956)

See my above commentary on Vertigo.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940) are Ford’s best films in my opinion.  Still, The Searchers is a good choice if you’re going to pick one from Ford.

8. Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

I thought I knew a lot about movies, but today is the first I’ve heard of this film.  I can’t comment until I know more about it.

9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927)

Once again, we really need a separate category for silent films.  Still, you can’t go wrong with Dreyer’s masterpiece.

10. 8 1/2 (1963)

No complaints here.

And those are my thoughts!

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

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